Why reading body language can make you a better communicator

If you're looking for a super power to gain a winning edge in business and relationships, it might be time to learn to read … body language.

"Ah-ha!" you'll shout to your boardroom nemesis, "I'm not offering another cent because I know you've decided to sign today!"

"Hi," you won't say to the gorgeous woman you meet out on Friday night, "I can tell you're comfortable to come home with me in a few hours. That's good to know!"

Actions, not words

Everyday language can be used to confuse, and obfuscate our true feelings, but body language reveals our inner truths. It is, experts say, more truthful than the spoken word.

Like pretty much every behavioural trait, body language evolved to keep the species alive.

Our ancestors navigated a terrifying world of disease, volcanoes and floods, and a number of nasties that wanted to eat them for lunch. Instantly communicating needs, emotions, fears and desires was a key element in staying alive. Taste something potentially poisonous? Our facial expression will make sure no-one else eats it. See a sabre-toothed tiger in the bushes? We freeze, and everyone else freezes. We are instantly able to communicate – others benefit from our reactions and we from theirs.

Be a better communicator

These days, it's no longer about survival but all our ticks and tells are still there, painting a perfect picture of what we're thinking and feeling.

Australian body language expert, David Alssema, has made a tidy living teaching corporates and sales teams how to improve their results through better communication built on … body language.

All good business is about communication, he says, so his work with big business is "building close relationships with customers and bridging the communication gap."


Learn the lingo

Like every other language, you need to "learn" body language. But once you have, it's like there are two conversations happening in front of you, one verbal and the other non-verbal.

"It's all about practice and building your knowledge," says Alssema. There are three "Cs" to unlocking body language – "it must be read in context, it needs to be congruent with spoken conversation and needs to be reads in clusters of three or more to build a non-verbal "sentence".

Personal giveaways

Science has been helping us understand the unspoken words of our bodies more and more over the years. Developments like facial recognition tech have a spin-off in defining and describing our give-away micro-expressions. Social media networks have helped peer-to-peer sharing of studies and developments.

"Whether in business, at home or in relationships, we can always be assured that true sentiments will be reflected in our body language through displays of comfort and discomfort," says Joe Navarro, former FBI Special Agent (a real spy!) and author of body language best-seller What Every Body is Saying. "This system has stood the test of time and survived to help us through its elegant simplicity."

A great example is "isopraxis" where you mirror the body shape of someone you admire, love or are sympathetic with. In the kitchen at home, I have, in a pointless but hilarious experiment, made my partner unwittingly stand in all sorts of weird positions, so strongly do we mirror each others' body language. Put your hands on your head, so will she. Cross your ankles, so will she. It's a real thing and shows just how powerful the unconscious clues of our bodies are. (Unless you've had a fight. Then you get nothing).

Covering your tracks

Of course, if you're a body language expert, it's possible to lie and cover some of the major head, hand and leg movements. But you're still an open book. Much harder to control are the micro-expressions, the twitches, the muscles around the mouth and eyes, says Alssema.

"Pupil dilation and blood rushing in fight or flight moments are very difficult to hide."

Even the "end of nose scratch", which is a stress giveaway, is still an itch you can't resist.

Between the lines

If you're able to read body language, Alssema says, you have more than twice the chance of picking up on a lie than if you do not. But it's not as simple as "if someone looks up and to the left," they're lying.

"I ask three questions when I first speak to someone," says Alssema. "I will ask them if they have been busy, and watch their eyes. I will ask them how their day was, and watch their eyes. Then I will ask them what they're doing next week, and watch their eyes."

The first two questions are based on memory. But in the last question requires a "constructed" response about the future. By watching the eyes, Alssema can tell which side a person looks for their remembered response, and where they find their constructed responses.

The upper hand

It's not about catching liars or catching a girlfriend – although body language is very handy for both - it's simply about communicating more effectively and efficiently.

"Having that extra insight gives us a more honest appraisal of others and it will, in the end, assist us in communicating more effectively and empathetically for a deeper understanding," says (real spy) Navarro.

If spies and big business are learning to read body language to be better at what they do, maybe you should too.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher Allen & Unwin. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.